Turning Insects Into a Sustainable Solution: The Potential of Bioplastics from Flies

Nick Terran
By Nick Terran
Black soldier flies have recently been used to create bioplastics.

In a world grappling with environmental challenges, researchers are turning to unlikely sources to develop sustainable alternatives. One such breakthrough comes from black soldier flies, proving their potential not just in nature but in aiding humanity’s push for eco-friendly solutions.

The concept is simple yet revolutionary: leverage insects to produce chemicals essential for biodegradable plastics, and then allow the same insects to decompose the resultant products.

This idea, which once might have seemed a sci-fi fantasy, has been brought into reality by scientists who recently showcased their findings and methods of turning insect-derived chemicals into functional bioplastics.

This groundbreaking research was unveiled during the hybrid ACS Fall 2023 meeting, a significant event in the scientific calendar featuring a multitude of presentations spanning various scientific disciplines.

Dr. Karen Wooley, Texas A&M University

Dr. Karen Wooley, who spearheaded the project, expressed, “We’ve spent two decades exploring ways to convert natural products, like sugar cane-derived glucose, into polymers that degrade without polluting.

Yet, these products come from sources that serve other vital purposes, from food and fuel to transportation and construction.”

This led her to seek out more sustainable, less competitive raw materials.

It was Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, a colleague and advocate for the black soldier fly industry, who pointed her in the direction of utilizing waste from these flies. The larvae of black soldier flies are nutritionally rich and hence are cultivated for animal feeds and waste consumption.

However, post-breeding, the adult flies have a limited lifespan and are typically discarded, turning them into an untapped resource.

Cassidy Tibbetts, a keen graduate student from Wooley’s team at Texas A&M University, highlighted the transformative nature of their approach: “We’re turning what’s essentially waste into something valuable.” Tibbetts’ investigation into the adult fly composition revealed chitin as a dominant component.

This biodegradable polymer, found in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans, has long been sourced from shrimp and crab shells.

Yet, the purity of chitin derived from flies appears superior, avoiding the common yellowish hue seen in traditional extraction. Furthermore, fly-based chitin sidesteps potential seafood allergy concerns.

Wooley’s team stands out in their approach, focusing on the overlooked adult flies rather than the larvae, which typically finds use in feed. While Tibbetts refines the extraction method, her colleague, Hongming Guo, has been converting chitin into chitosan, another valuable polymer.

Through a series of intricate chemical processes, Guo transformed chitosan into superabsorbent hydrogels, capable of absorbing 47 times their weight in water in mere minutes. 

Wooley illustrates potential applications, citing Texas’s alternating flood and drought scenarios: “Such a hydrogel can trap floodwater and release it during droughts, and being biodegradable, it could simultaneously nourish crops.”

The team’s ambition doesn’t stop here. They are venturing into breaking down chitin to yield glucosamines, aiming to create bioplastics typically derived from petrochemicals.

Moreover, black soldier flies offer a treasure trove of compounds like proteins, DNA, lipids, and vitamins, all awaiting exploration.

Wooley paints a picture of a future where these bioplastics, after serving their purpose, are decomposed by insects, and then these very insects are reused to generate more plastics. It’s a vision of a sustainable loop, aligned with the principles of a circular economy.

As Wooley puts it, “We’d love to see the cycle where insects consume discarded plastics, and we harness them again for new plastics. Essentially, they’d be the source and solution to our plastic challenge.”

Broader Implications: Examining How Bioplastics from Flies Could Help Create A More Sustainable Future for Our Environment and Economy

The innovative approach of transforming black soldier flies into bioplastics promises a myriad of benefits for both the environment and economy. Let’s delve into what this groundbreaking research might herald for our planet’s future.

Environmental Impact

    • Reduction in Plastic Pollution: One of the most evident advantages would be a significant reduction in traditional plastic pollution. Bioplastics sourced from flies not only serve their primary function, but are also biodegradable. This means that instead of languishing for centuries in landfills and oceans, these plastics would break down naturally, drastically reducing the environmental harm associated with plastic waste.
    • Sustainable Resource Utilization: Utilizing discarded adult flies, which would otherwise be waste, epitomizes a closed-loop, sustainable system. By diverting organic waste streams into valuable resources, we minimize the environmental footprint of resource extraction and waste disposal.
    • Mitigating Climate Change: Traditional plastics are petrochemical derivatives, and their production is carbon intensive. Bioplastics, on the other hand, are derived from renewable resources, potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the potential application of superabsorbent hydrogels in agriculture might lead to optimized water use, fostering sustainable farming practices in the face of changing climate conditions.

Economic Potential

    • New Industries and Job Creation: The fly-to-bioplastic model can foster the birth of new industries centered around insect farming, bioplastic production, and R&D. This would subsequently lead to the creation of jobs across the value chain – from insect breeding to bioplastic manufacturing and distribution.
    • Diversification of the Plastic Industry: As this method becomes mainstream, the plastic industry could diversify its sources, relying less on petrochemicals. This would make the industry more resilient to oil price fluctuations and potential shortages in the future.
    • Boost to Agriculture: The application of superabsorbent hydrogels in farming can revolutionize agriculture, especially in areas prone to floods and droughts. Enhanced water retention could lead to increased crop yields, ensuring food security and boosting the agricultural economy. Additionally, the use of biodegradable hydrogels can reduce the dependency on non-degradable synthetic water retainers currently in use.
    • Reduction in Cleanup Costs: As bioplastics decompose naturally, the costs associated with cleaning up traditional plastic pollution—be it in urban areas, oceans, or natural habitats—could be significantly reduced.

While this research is still in the early stages, the potential is astounding! The innovative research of deriving bioplastics from black soldier flies presents a beacon of hope in our fight against environmental degradation. By intertwining the threads of sustainability with economic growth, this approach exemplifies how science can pave the way for a brighter, greener future.

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